by Ed Cadwallader
To say that a policy is ‘social engineering’ is to say that it is bad, with no further explanation required. This strikes me as strange because social engineering is a very apt description of what schools do. The curriculum is a competition between individuals to see who’s top and who’s bottom. Children born to middle class parents are usually taught that they are at the top, their work is valuable and they can expect to have stable, well-paid employment in the future. Children born to poorer parents are far likelier to grow up with the mirror image of that experience, their academic performance denoting that they are inferior, less valuable citizens. School provides our formative understanding of how we as citizens relate to those in authority and each other. The way school is structured ensures three prominent features are embedded in these relationships: atomisation, passivity and hierarchy.
The overwhelming focus of our school system is exam results, that is the grades we receive to denote our individual achievement. Virtually all jobs involve working with other people towards shared goals, yet for the first fifteen odd years of our working lives we are taught to conceive of attainment in purely personal terms. Later on, our employers invest huge sums in making us more effective collaborators, effectively trying to unteach us the conception of work as a solo enterprise that we learned as children. Of course, schools to varying degrees engage their pupils in group work to try and foster these elusive team-working skills, but this if anything exacerbates the problem because the groups in question have no identity and their achievement no meaning. The lesson of group work is that working with other people is a means to achieve our own targets, the group is the tool of the individual rather than the other way around.
As well as raising us as atomised workers, school makes us passive ones. The tasks to be completed are defined by those in authority as is the quality of our responses. Pupils are taught in minute detail how to pass the particular exams chosen by their school. The lesson they absorb while doing so is that work means doing precisely what you’ve been to do, the way you’ve been told to do it. This passivity extends to disputes between pupils, as the correct response to any such disagreement is ‘tell a teacher’. The authorities at school assume the responsibility for all matters of student life, great and small. When problems arise in society, often problems caused by the way we as citizens behave, a cry goes up of ‘something must be done!’ This is the learned reaction of people who have formed their idea of how society works in a benign autocracy.
Atomisation and passivity weaken the fabric of society but their negative impact pales in comparison with the most damaging feature that school engineers into our relations with one another: hierarchy. It is simple to rank children based on school performance from best to worst. The language we use to describe them – ‘high ability’ ‘low attainer’ – makes this clear and it is a hierarchy of status, those we label as high achieving will gain secure, professional employment while ‘low achievers’ can expect insecure employment or none at all. A child’s position in the hierarchy determines their relationship with those in authority, as those treated with respect grow up to be respectful and those shamed with contempt become oppositional and defiant. The fact that the prison population is overwhelmingly made up of the latter group is usually explained by a deficiency of learning, lacking a good education these people turned to crime. But many people immigrate without qualifications and they don’t show the same propensity to commit crimes. Rather than what the lowest attainers didn’t learn at school we should think about what they did, the humiliating lesson they are considered the bottom of the social pile. If that was your formative experience of a society how much respect for that society and its values would you have?
Divisions of status harden into a class chasm because they not only affect how we relate to authority, but also how we relate to one another. Equality is a necessary condition for friendship and so the child who gets As is very rarely friends with her peer who gets Fs. As adults those who were successful in education and grew up to exercise control over the education system are untroubled by personal connections to those who are so ill served by it. Meanwhile, working class children who have the ability to succeed within the system are placed in the unenviable position of being asked to say to their friends and family ‘I’m going to leave you behind in poverty and go and join a separate, higher class of people’, if they are to pursue the social mobility that middle class system designers have decided they, but not their friends and family, deserve.
School engineers a divided society of citizens ill equipped to challenge established power structures, with fear and antagonism on both sides of the line that separates those who passed from those who failed. Social engineering is not an occasional threat posed by changes to university admissions procedures, it is a feature of modern society.
Though the responsibility is great and terrible the question educators must ask themselves is: what sort of society should we engineer?
About the author
Ed Cadwallader is an Educational Consultant who advises schools on assessment and curriculum design. He is interested in history, economics and the dangers that lurk around the corners of modernity. You can follow Ed on Twitter @Cadwalladered and his personal blog is Kingdom of Even.